Relating To Parents As We Age

As an adult child, you have a very different relationship with your parents than you did in your youth. If we are given the privilege of having a relationship with our parents as they age, how does that relationship evolve in order for us to engage with them and care for them? 

Listen as Dan Allender and Rachael Clinton Chen speak from their generational perspectives about the relationship between adult children and their parents throughout the aging process.

Episode Transcript:

Dan: Rachael, I’m gonna start with an obvious, uh, demarcation between the two of us. I’m old and you may not be young, but you’re way younger. And what we’re going to address today is the reality that we’re all called to deal with our aging parents. And my parents are no longer on the earth, but I had the privilege of caring for them prior to their death. And you have aging parents. And, but I’m gonna put you in the role of, in that sense, talking about how you would care for someone like me as an aging parent, is that fair?

Rachael: It’s fair. And I’m just so aware, like, oh, these are such complex waters. And, you know, I know there are people that haven’t gotten the privilege of even parents getting to this aging period. And I’m laughing, cause I’m thinking if my parents are listening to this and they hear you call them old, you know, they might have some pushback to that ’cause they’re they are younger, older parents, but you’re absolutely right. Like in some ways now is the time for us. My parents are in their early sixties. So now is the time for us, you know, nothing’s a guarantee, but if you’re going to start having those conversations, it’s something I don’t wanna think about. And I find myself resistant to it, even as you’re like, we’re gonna have this conversation today. Like even when you say I’m old, I feel like you’re old-ish but you know, not like old,

Dan: Hey look. When, when, when COVID was in its initial raging stages, uh, and something came up about how there maybe eventually a vaccine that the elderly would need. And I remember passing by, as Becky said that to me and I said, well, that won’t be us. And she said, what do you mean it won’t be us? I said, well, we’re not elderly. And she goes, what do you think elderly begins at? And I said, well, 75, she started roaring and said, uh, you are well into the era of being elderly because it begins 60. So technically back to your parents, they are elderly. Now they may be young, elderly, uh, almost neophyte, uh, elderly. But nonetheless, we are talking about how to care for aging, elderly parents. But I wanna be really clear that we’re not talking primarily about end of life. And look, those are not small issues and could take us on a whole other podcast. But you know, if you’re dealing with truly end of life, uh, you know, uh, the last, perhaps five years, six years of a person’s life, you’re gonna have to deal with everything from health and and protocols, uh, to living arrangements, uh, legal, financial issues. As painful as this may sound internment issues like how do you want to be buried and details? I mean, so many details, including like how do we log into your private counts, et cetera, et cetera. But the assumption that as you’re dealing with elderly parents or aging parents, that you’re only dealing with those kinds of life situations, uh, is already amiss. Like you’re not going to be able to deal with the complex truly end of life issues, if you’ve not done something well before. And that’s what we want to talk about. How do you care for aging parents? And another way of putting this is how do you acknowledge that as an adult child, you have a very different relationship with your parent than you did when you were in your, obviously your teens, early twenties, et cetera. So again, love to hear what your mind is doing already, Rachel, with regard to this lovely topic. 

Rachael: It’s like, I feel myself getting emotional, to be honest you, um, Ugh. Um, I think because it’s, first of all, my parents have been so generous to us, like helping us become adults. And I think, you know, I know we’re gonna talk about this in another podcast, but how much work, um, goes into helping young people become adults and you think, oh, you can send ’em to college to become adults. And I just think like I just turned 40 this year and I still feel like my parents are like helping me become an adult in that generosity. So something my siblings and I have always talked about is when, as the opportunities come, as we have opportunities to return that generosity them to even provide in ways that I actually think are so risky and hard because to let your children provide for you is, is humbling. And I know some people are like, it’s about time. Like, like maybe some people feel more that way. Like we’ve given you a lot and now it’s time to get some return on that investment. So I’m aware maybe people feel that way, but I, you know, I think it brings up for me. Um, what are the conversations that I’ve always, I’ve always been trying, I think from a really young age, trying to get the stories of my parents and the stories of our family that feel, you know, both the ones are like the funny ones, the idiosyncratic ones, the ones that are just so absurd about someone’s life that you almost are just like, this could be a movie in and of itself, but also the stories that have deeply shaped who my parents have become and, and what has been passed on to us. And what’s important to keep. And I remember even with my grandparents doing this when they were in that, you know, I still am lucky to have one… my, my maternal grandmother is still alive. She’s turned 90 this year, but I have watched my grandparents transition out of this life into the next. And I remember just that kind of urgent feeling of like, there’s so much, I don’t know about you. There’s so much, I don’t know about your life. There’s so much, I don’t know about your desires and your longings and like, what are the things that have gone unsaid between us? And I feel that when I, when you bring this conversation to light, I feel that almost like an urgency, like, oh my gosh, I have to call my parents today. And like have some conversations I’ve been putting off or you know, that, what are the core questions I have that I need to start having the courage to lean into?

Dan: Oh, well, let’s just underscore what our audience knows. I certainly know you are wacky and wonderful. Uh, and when I say wacky, all, I mean by that, in this context is you are very unusual. In that I don’t think most, shall we say children of aging parents act, actually have a pursuit of curiosity, a pursuit of how did the two of you meet again? Um, you know, how did you plan your wedding? What was kindergarten like for you? Like, were you a good student or did you get in trouble and you already know, come on. Like, if you’ve at all studied your parents, you, you kind of know at least a little bit, but what you don’t know are the stories they hold that at some deep level, they may be ambivalent to tell you, but really at the core they are so desirous to have someone in their family ask questions that may be awkward or odd or initially difficult yet there is that, oh, that longing in the human heart for a, a parent to be known.

Rachael: Yeah. And I mean, I think that, oh, like we are, these are just man, these are, these are courageous waters. And we’ve been in a season, um, that I think because they, they invite us to step closer to just the idea and reality of mortality in general. And again, some of have already tasted that in really tragic ways and maybe it does feel more present. Um, but you know, these past couple years have really caused us to confront that life is really precious and we don’t just have endless time. And I just think about like, you call me wacky. Like, you know, I had my first existential crisis in first grade with result of time and aging. Um, and I remember even 15 years ago when I moved to Seattle, it was my first time living so far away from home. I actually started counting like, okay, if my parents lived to be this age, you know, and I saw them times a year, how many more times will I see them? Um, and yet some of that urgency I feel has still not always manifested as an acting on that courage in the ways I most long to. And I would imagine it’s similar for you in the season that you are in. And I’m curious, you know, for your children to begin engaging these, these realities of aging with you, like, what has that been like for you even to just name, that’s a desire that you have, do you have that desire? How do we do, how do we do this?

Dan: Hmm. Well, yeah, absolutely. And to say it’s easier to talk about on a podcast than it is actually in the context of relationship with your own children, but nonetheless, uh, you know, we’ve been what I would call a highly storied family. So, you know, they’ve had to deal with, you know, like when we come to birthdays, um, uh, I’ll ask questions, like talk about your favorite two birthdays or, uh, the, the question that always irritates them is on, on their birthday. Tell us about what the birth process was like for you. And it’s like, dad gross. I don’t wanna talk about that. I don’t remember so, well, I, I, if you don’t remember, I’m glad to offer you a few details about the experience. So, but nonetheless, the questions that my children ask generally, don’t probe that far. Um, so for example, do they know the eon that I grew up in? Um, I grew up in the Vietnam era. I never went to Vietnam. I didn’t fight in that war, but it had a tremendous influence on the shaping of my world. I remember at one point talking about Vietnam and there was just, I, I, not that my children had never heard of it, but they knew very little about how the war began, how it progressed, how it ended. And I said to them, look, if you want to understand a little bit more a about my world, you could watch the Ken Burns documentary, which is stunningly well done. And in that, I think you’re gonna find things that intrigue you, or at least things that will take you further into the nature of the world. I was suffering as a 12 and 14 and 16 year old boy. So part of the labor of asking questions like any good investigative reporter, you gotta do your homework before you begin. So do you know the era, do you know the, the ground, do you know the issues that, that family of origin your grandparents actually brought or even the great grandparents? So that sense of, I am curious, and I want to know you, I I’m telling you, I, I, when I talk to my aging friends, I, I wrote to one friend and I said, what do you want your children to ask? Let me read what he wrote. He said anything that, and with capitals and said, any question would be an opportunity to tell stories, to fill in history, to pass on wisdom, to own up to foolishness. And he said, and why is it that just when I got to the age, I felt comfortable asking more of those questions, my parents weren’t around answer them. And I feel that too, with regard to my own parents, like so many questions that for whatever reason I didn’t ask. So when we begin to address, yes, there will be end of life issues, but you can’t even get to those particularities, which are uncomfortable enough unless you’ve invested some degree of energy to explore and to do investigation of how your parents came to be who they are. And that I think for the heart of an aging parent, the idea that you’d be curious about me, that you would take the stories you do know, but use those as stepping stones to actually make certain assumptions that you check out, uh, uh, entering into something of the complications that you know of my own life with curiosity. That’s not just tell me the story, but how did you make it through? So I think there’s that sense of, can we invest in developing truly, a true adult relationship with our parents?

Rachael: Well, and you know, when you say that, Dan, I’m just thinking about, um, again, like in some ways to be able to engage the, that, those kind of questions with curiosity, you have to have been willing to have it for yourself, right. And, um, and these and these conversations can also be so, so rocked because we have to get into, you know, when you think about caring for aging parents, caring for this particular season of life, it’s that acknowledgement of someone’s humanity, that they still have desires and dreams and disappointments that they’ve experienced. And also that they know they’ve been a part of, and you have so much life that’s unfolded. Um, there’s so much debris in some ways that can be there that has to be tended to, and, and yet, um, it’s so worth it.

Dan: Well, and, uh, I think it’s so unfortunate, but it’s also a good beginning point to say, bucket list. Um, what are your desires before you pass from this life? And I think bucket list dreams and desires, or at least a beginning point. And unfortunately, I think most people have a kind of, well, I always want to go to Rome or, you know, I wanted to jump out of a plane with a parachute crazy as that is, nonetheless. Bucket lists are at least a decent cultural grounding, but I think if we can get through that to say, what are the desires that have ruled you for good and ill? What are the dreams that have driven you, for good or ill and how are they playing out now? You know, so we, don’t just all of a sudden, you know, at the age of retirement, whatever that might be sort of now start new dreams. Um, but they’ve been there for long seasons. So we’re right back to how are the dreams and desires of your life? How have they been cultivated? You know, who planted them? How have they been cultivated? How have they shaped you, again, back to this category of broken and beautiful? How have they actually increased your brokenness? How have they increased your beauty? And even to be able to use with an aging parent, there are things about you that are stunning and beautiful, and there are things as your child I know, are somewhat broken. Is that a possible conversation that you can have with a parent? And if the answer is, oh, good, God, no. Then the question is, how come?

Rachael: I mean, even as you ask that, I think what would you say or speak to those who have every desire to have those conversations, but have found time and time and time, again, it either doesn’t go well, or it’s actually not, it feels like an impossibility.

Dan: Well, I had that experience certainly with my father. And I can tell you the date March 3rd, 1991. The day that my father told me that he had lung cancer and had anywhere from nine months to a year to live. And I remember all of a sudden, um, waking up, even in that conversation, like my time is limited and there is so little that I know about my father and I made, uh, as best as I can use the word I made a vow that I was not going to let this man pass from the earth without me asking some very hard questions. And I’ve said in other contexts, that my father was a monosyllabic man, uh, a yes, a, no, a, maybe a shrug of the shoulders, but literally a full sentence or two very rare. Paragraphs, almost unheard of. And so I told my dad that he was not gonna pass from this earth without me asking questions. Like, how did you first meet my mother? Um, where, and how did you decide the, you wanted to date her, et cetera, et cetera. And again, we didn’t have the benefit of zoom, uh, but I could tell you at the other end of the phone was a blank look that was full of quiet rage. And he said, well, I don’t know. I don’t know. Uh, uh, yeah. And then made it clear. He was gonna hang up. And I said, I’m gonna call you every day until the day you die, and I’m gonna have questions for you. And whether you answer them or not, that’s your problem, not mine. But I’m gonna ask. And I think because of the weight of his mortality for him, and for me, it began the process of opening the door. And I will say very loud and clear. It was not easy ever, but after a few months, I think my father realized this dude’s serious. And he’s not going to relent. And I mean, there were times where the phone call was 30 seconds where I had asked a question and he’d say, well, I don’t know. I don’t have time. I don’t feel well. And he’d hang up on me. And because he was in chemotherapy because he was dealing with cancer, you know, I didn’t push him, but when he did feel better and he was on a little longer, I would go back to those questions and I can tell you, it is some of the richest best moments I ever shared with my father. And I knew a lot more about him, uh, uh, in his passing than I knew in proverbial 35-some years prior to that. So yes, there’s a cost, especially with a parent who’s reluctant, uh, who’s not normally open to addressing anything, but the facts, the facts, and nothing but the facts. But I think, again, this is why I keep coming back to this word, curiosity. Uh, there is something in every human heart that longs to be known, even if we’re terrified and have good reasons for that terror, but we need to have something of that heartfelt… You’re not gonna pass without me knowing more about who you are and who I am as a result of being in relationship with you.

Rachael: Well, and another category that comes to mind in this realm is the longing and desire for blessing and I’m, and that’s that, that goes mutual both ways, um, blessing and gratitude. Um, even in our failures, even in our, and again, I’m aware I’m having this conversation. Like some people have parents who are severely, mentally ill or actually are violent and they can’t be in relationship. So I know I don’t want anyone to hear like, well, that’s your fault you should be pursuing. And I don’t think that’s at all what we’re saying. Um, but that there, even despite that there is still longing for blessing both as a child of an aging parent. And I would imagine as someone who is seeing their time and reflecting back on life, the good, the bad, the ugly and longing for blessing. And, and for honor, and I think good care opens the door and invites the possibility, um, for there to be maybe more blessing than has been, or more nuanced or more extended. Um, cause I’m not at all making the assumption people haven’t experienced that throughout their relationship or throughout their life. I think it brings a different level, um, a different finality on this side of things.

Dan: Yup. Well said. Well said. And again I think, I’ll come back to you as a parent. Don’t you fear that you’re not doing a good job?

Rachael: Oh my gosh. All the time, all the time. You’re just aware of the, like even your best attempts to love well, still have your, all your good, like your, as you say, your beautiful and broken humanity, wrapped up in it. Um, so yes, yes, that, that desire to love so well. Um, and yet still being confronted with your failures.

Dan: And I, this is the complicated structure to talk about blessing. If my children were to look at me and say, I think you were a great dad, Uh, I would be touched.

Rachael: This is where your, this is where your wackiness comes out. I’m just gonna say…

Dan:  Perhaps.

Rachael: It’s good. It’s really good. I’m just saying, my guess is a lot of people will be like, no lie to me. Just tell me, give me the fluff.

Dan: Right. And, and I’ll, I’ll claim to be wacky. Uh, but I need to know the truth. And if the truth is I’ve been a good parent, I also know I have failed. So I need my children to be able to, in one sense, be curious about my failures, not excuse them, but be curious. I remember one of the days that both daughters went to visit my parents, they were adults college age, and maybe a little bit beyond. And after a single half day with my mother, my daughters called me and said, dad want you to know we’re doing good. We’re doing fine. We’re having a great time. But we also want to say to you, how did you deal with your mom’s craziness? And I, I, I was undone by the question alone. I just like what? And they said, let me tell you what your mom has done. And they explained a very common bind my mom would put me or anyone in. And it was a bind where if you said, yes, you hurt her. If you said, no, you hurt her. And…

Rachael: That sounds fun.

Dan: And it is not a good situation. And so what my daughter said to me was it is amazing as we look at your life that you actually have not made us pay in the same way. Now, one of the daughters also said, but you make us pay in other ways. And, and, and in that odd, but compelling blessing, honoring that in so many ways, my own structure of failure has a history I’m still responsible. And in certain ways I’ve done well, giving my daughters, my son, something of a life that’s different. And yet in all my efforts to create a good world, I still have failed them. And that’s the capacity for true blessing when you can name brokenness and beauty together, especially the context and the trajectory of where it is that, you know, a parent wants to go. But I think that’s, that’s hard work to think about you, you, you will not get to that kind blessing unless you’ve got a relationship where you can begin to tell something of the truth out of their story, where as you hear about the wars that your parents have gone through personally, interpersonally, physically, uh, in all domains, and to be able to say with deep appreciation, uh, you have, you’ve been harmed and I have a better understanding of why it might be that you handle stress, conflict heartache in this way. Um, those are conversations that if you can’t have, then you have to ask the question, why? Is that parent so defensive? Is that parent so fragmented? Then the question is, how can you move maybe way slower but to begin, tell truth about your own life and your own failures and your own beauty and dreams. So that in one sense, this is not a foreign conversation to have regarding yourself, let alone that parent, let alone eventually us as a couple, me and one daughter, me with another daughter, me with my son, and now add my wife and our marriage. And now we’re in the realm that is just like, I’m just so sad. Most people never get close to these kinds of conversations.

Rachael: And that just makes me think, Dan, um, how do we honor the ache for them? Um, either in the places it’s just so hard to get close to them, or it feels unwise or impossible to get close to them because in some ways I think there’s still a way to honor the desire to honor the ache. Even if you know, the actuality of it doesn’t feel within reach.

Dan: Well, you can respond to this and, and just take it where you wish. But let me just say it this way. You will always be a child to a parent, but you need to own, you’re an adult. And in owning, you’re an adult. You you’re really ultimately saying, though, I will always be your child. You will always be my parent. I have the right. And in some sense, far more than, right. I have the privilege of being in an adult relationship with you. In that sense, there is this component that you become more of a friend than merely a child. And in that ownership, I think things change when, you know, I remember the first time, uh, all three of my children. It’s interesting. I just put words to that where all three of my children, at one point in their beginning, adult years invited me, uh, to dinner and paid for it. And I remember the disjunction of, I was appreciative that they paid, but it was like weird. You’re paying. Yeah, you got, you got your job and you’re buying me dinner. And there was something really sweet in that, but also something disconcerting like, oh, wait a minute, you’re an adult, I’m an adult. I’m still your parent, but we’re adults together. And in that transition, I think there is an opening, but I think there’s so sad to underscore that, um, this is just not possible with all parents and it could be due to health, could be due to complexities and their life and relationship, but it might be and, you brought this term up earlier, uh, it might be mental illness. It might be the issue of addiction might be that you’ve got a narcissistic father or mother. And in dealing with them, to ask any of these questions into engage as an adult would be so disruptive that in some ways, uh, you’re just not in a place or a time where these kinds of conversations could occur.

Rachael: Yeah. It just, it makes me think if this is a category that feels really true to you in some ways that probably feel agonizing. Um, I do think it’s important to honor that longing to honor that ache and, and to pray and to see what doors might open. And sometimes they may not open with that actual parent, but maybe a close friend of that parent or a aunt or an uncle who holds stories, um, who can offer words of blessing and insight that again, will not maybe not meet that longing and fullness, but will honor that there is more for you, um, in this season of significant transition. And I think I would just say to those who never got the opportunity to have these conversations, um, to also honor your longing, um, and, um, to let your heart be open to ways even it might shift and change how you interact with those around you.